Nika P.'s Story

"I think most of the things I learned for the college process would be from the conference that QuestBridge held."

Veronika (Nika) Pogrebna’s family moved from Ukraine to Richmond, Virginia when she was only 9 years old. At first, the family’s acclimation to the new country went well. Once a fifth grader who couldn’t speak very much English, by the time she was 13, Nika was already fluent and accustomed to taking on various jobs in order to earn money for her personal expenses. Even before entering college, she had already worked as an assistant camp counselor and taken on a position at a local learning center for math and reading.

Nika’s ambition also helped when, halfway through high school, her father lost his job in the midst of the financial crisis. This caused Nika to work even harder to not just ease her family’s financial struggles, but to also anticipate the finances needed for college. Come senior year, when college applications demanded most of her attention, she did not stop working, but instead opted for a less time-consuming job as a bagger at a grocery store.

“I’ve been pretty motivated from the time we came to the U.S. to get into college,” she said. “That was never not an option because of my parents and my family. Education is very important to us.”

While both of her parents attended school in Ukraine, Nika was the first generation in her family to pursue higher education in America — an unfamiliar terrain for her and her parents. Therefore, when Nika was introduced to QuestBridge by her AP Biology teacher, Ms. Sheralyne Tierseron, she was skeptical, yet excited to learn more about a program that seemed “a little too good to be true.”

She applied for the College Prep Scholars Program in her junior year of high school and was invited to the National College Admissions Conference at Princeton. With a newborn brother in the house and her parents needing to work, Nika invited Ms. Tierseron to make the drive with her from Virginia to Princeton, New Jersey. It was through the workshops and talks at the conference that Nika was able to learn about the college application process in greater detail.

“I think most of the things I learned for the college process would be from the conference that QuestBridge held,” she explained. “Which is, I think, the only reason I probably knew all of the details of applying to college.”

In fact, it was during the conference that Nika first heard about Washington and Lee University. Located in Lexington, Virginia, just a few hours away from Richmond, W&L fit the criteria Nika was looking for. “The academics are definitely a priority for me in terms of picking a university,” she said. “When I was looking at the school, I also looked into research opportunities and small classes.”

Originally, Nika had been accepted to her home-state public college that had offered to cover the total cost of tuition, as she lived very close and would not need on-campus housing. However, after being accepted to W&L, a smaller private university, with an equally attractive financial aid package, Nika chose to attend this school instead. What ultimately attracted her to the university was that it not only allowed her to live on campus with a full ride, but as a liberal arts college, it also offered the one-on-one attention Nika was looking for from her professors. While her parents were excited for their daughter, they had many questions, as living on a college campus was not something either of them had experienced. Additionally, none of them, Nika included, had visited the school before.

“My dad didn’t look at the school until [he] was dropping me off, and my mom didn’t look at the school until later on in the semester,” she said. “It was really kind of like a blind decision which ended up going pretty well.”

At first, Nika wasn’t sure how she would fit in with the rest of the W&L community. Though her high school was diverse, a selective university exposed her to a different subset of peers. She was surrounded by students from all over the country and many students from households of much higher incomes. To add to this, the academics proved much more difficult than in high school, and Nika had to learn to manage her time, namely, how to reserve some free time to spend with her friends and family.

Yet despite the initial hardships that college life presented, Nika was also surprised and pleased with the wealth of opportunities it was able to give her. Nika selected Biology as her major and found an interest in research. Spent summers on campus studying the effects of obesity on reproduction and fertility. Outside of her involvement in the QuestBridge Scholars Network Chapter at W&L, Nika also volunteered at the emergency room at the local hospital and at a hotline for a shelter for women who have been sexually abused and affected by domestic violence. In the future, she hopes to apply to an M.D. program.